The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently posted an Accident Detail Report identifying the cause of January 25, 2019, crash involving a Union Pacific train and an Athens, Texas, school bus as highway user inattentiveness (UPDATE: Federal Railroad Administration report on Athens train crash cites highway user inattentiveness as cause). The accident killed a 13-year-old student and caused injuries to the bus driver and a 9-year-old student.
As described in the report, the Union Pacific crew saw the bus initially stop at the grade crossing. The bus driver then inexplicably continued across the tracks and was struck by the locomotive. The train, consisting of 54 cards totaling almost 5,000 tons traveling at about 40 miles per hour, did not derail.
According to Athens Police Chief Buddy Hill, the grade crossing at the scene of the accident did not have crossing arms or flashing signals. “It was just equipped with crossbucks and yield signs,” Hill said.
It is unclear whether the train was exceeding a safe speed because the FRA determines speed limits based on a number of factors. “As far as my knowledge, we have no city ordinances on speed for trains as they come through town,” Hill said.
Union Pacific trains are equipped with outward-facing cameras that can provide details in the event of an accident. “We know from the data that the engineer sounded the train horn for about 30 seconds prior to impact,” Union Pacific media representative Kristen South said. “That’s twice as long as required by law. We are working with the Athens Police Department to figure out why he proceeded through that crossing.”
Although it appears the main cause of this tragic accident was an inattentive school bus driver, it is clear that a contributing factor was a lack of effective warning signs such as crossing arms and flashing signals. We will continue to experience these heartbreaking incidents as long as we allow the railroads to prioritize profits over the safety of American motorists.